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“I don’t seem like the kind of person who would work in a place like this,” newly hired Jonah (Ben Feldman) tells big-box store co-worker Amy (America Ferrera) at the top of Superstore.
Jonah is also speaking on behalf of NBC’s Superstore, the network’s latest attempt to solve its comedy branding problem with rehashes of the low-rated shows that led to its comedy branding problem in the first place. Through four episodes, Superstore absolutely has potential, but it also doesn’t seem like the type of show that will work on a network like this — especially not the way NBC is handling it.
Superstore will have a special two-episode premiere on Monday, Nov. 30, after The Voice, which is pretty much the only way NBC can possibly get a sampling for a new comedy these days. Then Superstore will go back on the shelf for a month before returning on Jan. 4, where it will have the advantage of being the only sitcom in its 8 p.m. time period, but also the onus of being only a temporary player, since NBC has already trimmed its order to 11 episodes ahead of the spring return of The Voice. Because Superstore is exactly the sort of comedy that would benefit from time to find its structure and creative rhythms and time for audiences to warm to the individual characters, none of this bodes well, but it’s still kinder than being shunted off to Friday nights. Maybe.
It doesn’t help that early episodes of Superstore are very comparable to the early low-quirk episodes of Community, before Dan Harmon was able to go full Dan Harmon, but not before NBC viewers were able to decide that Community would never be more than a beloved but low-rated oddity. That version of Community wasn’t the best version of Community, but it was an effective character-driven comedy in a nicely specific environment and it laid the groundwork for the better Community to exist.
Feldman’s Jonah is the Jeff Winger of Superstore, a seemingly overqualified guy forced by circumstances to become part of the mismatched family of oddballs working at fictionalized megastore Cloud 9. The audience is supposed to have made the same assumption as Jonah — that he’s not the kind of guy who would normally work at a place like this — so Amy’s lacerating response, “Don’t let the other workers here know how much better than them you are” is directed as much at us as at him. Through the early episodes, we don’t learn the circumstances that brought Jonah to Cloud 9, and I like to believe that creator Justin Spitzer is intentionally denying viewers the answer so that we don’t treat Jonah as a source of pity or as a cautionary tale.
Assumptions also steer the supporting ensemble, which is made up of exactly the sort of “types” you might expect to find in a workplace like this, only the writers and the fantastic cast get quick opportunities to give them dimension. You think you know what the jokes are going to be with Mark McKinney’s ultra-religious store manager — think Shirley meets The Dean, if we’re sticking with Community comparisons — but by the fourth episode, they’ve been subverted a little, by both the writers and by McKinney’s limb-flailing energy.
Shameless veteran Nichole Bloom brings a sweetness that makes Cheyenne more than just the “pregnant teen.” It’s Colton Dunn’s comic timing that makes Garrett distinctive more for his sardonic love of anarchy than just for being the “African-American guy in the wheelchair.” Making Matteo more than the “ambitious gay guy” and turning Dina into more than the “scarily aggressive assistant manager” will be challenges for Nico Santos and Lauren Ash in future episodes, but ensembles rarely jell instantly and the first four installments of Superstore show encouraging progress.
The first four episodes also show encouraging progress toward making both Jonah and Amy more than just the “normal” couple we’re supposed to root for romantically down the road. As NBC’s A to Z displayed, Feldman has the necessary low wattage charm to be a likable leading man, but I think he’s a much more appealing actor when he’s given something quirkier to play, so Jonah’s almost pathological optimism and need for approval offer potential and some laughs. Jonah’s also funny when he can be the source of some jokes from his co-workers, when Superstore is able to capitalize on its diversity for some knowing gags about conventional TV casting (“He looks like a villain on The CW,” one character says of Feldman’s leading-man looks).
Like Feldman, Ferrera is much more interesting when Amy’s seeming proficiency and stability lead to workplace screw-ups. A premise like Superstore doesn’t need conventional normals, which Spitzer probably knows from his experience on The Office, where Jim and Pam’s romance made sense when they fell for each other as kindred oddballs, rather than just as the most conventionally attractive employees at Dunder Mifflin.
Pilot director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and production designer Aaron Osbourne have done well turning the ordered chaos of the big-box store into an environment packed with opportunities for visual gags as well, whether blink-and-you-miss-it flyers on a cork board or more elaborate constructions like a frowny face of precariously stacked beverage cans. Occasional sequences in the parking lot or brief road trips prevent claustrophobia from setting in on a show which, at least thus far, hasn’t wanted to go home with any of its characters.
As the ensemble comes together, it will be interesting to see how Superstore settles into an episodic routine – specifically what it chooses to have these increasingly funny employees actually do at their workplace. That’s where this new entry is most initially unsteady, because while Spitzer and the writers are determined not to treat the workers with condescension, the easiest way to compensate has been by mocking the customers at Cloud 9, who are represented mostly as aisle-clogging grotesques, whether descending like locusts on a heavily discounted wedding sale or voraciously attempting to capitalize on improperly priced items. Inevitably soulless Corporate also spends an episode as an easy adversary as Superstore struggles to find the right Us vs. Them structure to make the whole Cloud 9 team into a collective underdog we want to see succeed, rather just making Jonah and Amy seem like the underdogs who need to escape Cloud 9.
If Superstore can continue to improve, the show itself can be the underdog as it strives to emulate Community in carving out a long run, despite NBC’s comedy inertia.
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